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Diversity and the Whose Flag? Controversy on DO

There is a controversy brewing on Design Observer based on William Drenttel's calling out the lack of diversity of a panel of judges of an Adbusters contest to design a global flag. It has set off a firestorm of comments, some of which are plain scary. Below is my response:

First, William, you are super cool and brave to introduce this subject. The fact that you represent a "privileged white American male" makes me hopeful for the future diversity of the design profession, because social and economic justice is not possible, until there are those who are willing to share and, in some cases give up, their positions of privilege in order to allow marginalized others to gain access. You are part of the solution.

I am saddened and bemused by some of the comments to this post. I am saddened by the anger and fear by some of the commentators -- those who feel that their positions of privilege and authority (based on their race and gender) is threatened by the call that a "global" design project reflect more perspectives than that of seven white men. In the immortal words of Sojourner Truth, "If my cup won't hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?"

Diversity is about the having a range of perspectives in ways that matter to the subject. There are certain categories of identity in which the meanings are often overdetermined. These categories tend to be race/ethnicity, class, gender, and religion. Being overdetermined means that your are more likely to have experiences that significantly differ from someone in another group based on that identity. Yes, there are different perspectives among seven white men but does that represent a wide enough range of experiences, such that one does not overlap with the others.

Note that being judged by the "content of your character" does not mean being color/gender/class/religion blind. One's experiences based on overdetermined differences informs one's character. Experiences of institutional racism may help develop one's strength of resolve to succeed by creating one's own institutions. Experiences of the multi-ethnic culture of Islamic practice may develop one's tolerance for racial differences. Experiences of sexism may make one more expressive of the emotional inner life that is "forbidden" in the business world. These are the content of one's character, but they are generated by the external characteristics to which people positively or negatively respond.

I am bemused by those who are criticizing the call for diversity by pointing out its most cynical or failed implementations. Yes, sometimes diversity can devolve into "visual politics" without substantial differences in perspective. For example, Clarence Thomas was no Thurgood Marshall and Sarah Palin is no Hillary Clinton. But there should be an institutional consciousness that says that if we are going to create a world flag that we should recruit designers who my have different perspectives and experiences of issues of nationalism, internationalism, flags, perhaps flag-burning, and it should be global. Who are the top flag-burning designers?

This is getting "longer than the original post." Suffice to say that intentional or unintentional policies of exclusion of the diversity of perspectives is the root of all evil. The hubris of seven white American men judging the fate of a global flag is not so different than the hubris of the European heads partition of Africa. Shame on Adbusters. Praise for William for calling it out.


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